The burden of the body seems a common thread through our course’s texts. The body burdens us because its desires put us in conflict with accepted norms, forcing us into the closet or into the position of outlaw. Or it burdens us because its physical traits do not match up with our views of ourselves, forcing us to surgically reconstruct them in our own ways. It burdens us by carrying memories, pressing the traces of childhood trauma or sexual encounters into our flesh. Its mannerisms tell people something we are trying to hide. It exposes too much of our history and identity, risking that, secrets revealed, we will face punishment for what we have done or want to do.
For Little Tong, the protagonist of Chu T’ien-Wen’s “Bodhisattva Incarnate,” his queer body is the origin and manifestation of an emotional burden that projects detached malaise onto the rest of his life. Comparing his body to a dried fish chipped at and used for seasoning, Tong thinks to himself, “The body is a burden, let it be pared away and disappear!” (32). This explicit equation of body with burden reflects anxiety that originates within oneself. This anxiety traces its roots far deeper than the anxiety of the closet or the fear of the public eye: it originates from the fact of being born to begin with, and the impossibility of being born into a body whose desires put one at risk of never settling down with one partner, of never reaching stability or fulfillment, of dying from AIDS, of failing to make a genuine connection with other people. The isolated anxiety of Tong floating by himself in the swimming pool as he considers such existential dilemmas conveys the difficulty of carrying (and living within) this burdened body (31). The act of floating also calls to mind the nothingness that Tong longs for.
The recognition of a burden proceeds immediately to the desire to lay it down. The burden of Tong’s body creates within him a longing for relief, for nothingness. This nothingness is found, as suggested by the “pair of eyes watching” Tong, in an encounter with another person (32). Tong’s encounter with Zhong Lin, however, seems to only complicate his anxiety further, providing not relief but instead more burdens to carry and more questions to consider. I think here of Giovanni’s Room, in which David and Giovanni reach nothingness through their seclusion from everyday life; retreating to a tiny room on the edge of the city, they create a space removed from everyday life and protected from outside view, a space in which, to the outside world, they are nothing. Yet as in Giovanni’s Room, the quest for nothingness in “Bodhisattva” contributes to the characters’ original anxiety. The impossible choice between carrying one’s burden for eternity or adding to it by seeking to dispose of it gives all of these queer engagements no hope for growth or resolution. Both texts end unsatisfactorily, for both reader and character, by gesturing back to their openings, drawing a circle (or, to return to Tim Dean and Michel Foucault, a spiral) in which intimacy serves only to cloak entrapment.
As one of the few texts we’ve read with a straight author, “Bodhisattva” triggers an extra consideration: who is carrying this burden, if not the (potentially dead) author? In Giovanni’s Room it is easy to conflate, or at least associate, tortured expat David with tortured expat James Baldwin. I’m reminded especially of poetry by queer authors like Reinaldo Arenas or D.A. Powell. In poems like these, the speakers often remain undefined and vague enough that readers can substitute the poets’ anxiety for the speakers’. In all these cases the text’s burden is perceived, I would submit, as undeniably authentic, because of the author’s identity. Since many critics contest the legitimacy of Chu T’ien-Wen to speak of the gay experience, the ability of her works to carry this burden authentically is up for debate, as well. Laying aside the ethics of Chu’s decision to write from a gay point of view, the reality that she did write from this point of view, and that she compellingly conveys the emotional burden expressed by many queer-authored texts we’ve read, poses yet another challenge to our attempt to define queer literature. I’m not sure yet whether this challenge opens queer literature to new possibilities or instead effaces its uniqueness and, in effect, its very queerness.